Swamp thing (North London Dirt #3)

Rain rain rain, fun fun fun.


10/4/20208 min read

Six am, rain on the window, yellow slivers of street light.

It’s not going to let up until midday, and it’s proper rain, ‘wet rain’ as they say up North. The type of rain that means there is zero chance you will stay dry no matter what brand of waterproof you have. If so much as an ankle is exposed to this deluge then over the next six hours water will soak from that tiny spot and, like an oak pulling nutrients from the earth, you will be saturated.

What makes you think, then, that going out there is a good idea?

It’s not a good idea, that much is obvious, so what makes it an acceptable idea? What will actually make you don a collection of strange nylon shapes, pull the bike out of the shed, and make your way to the start?

Three things. The first is that two very nice guys have made the effort over the preceding year to create an intricate gravel route that will thread out of Stoke Newington and into the first ring of countryside that surrounds the capital. The second is that this is my first organised ride for exactly one year and I am going a little crazy. Finally, mostly, it’s a mini adventure and life has been lacking those lately.

Because it was raining incessantly yesterday there are no surprises when I roll out the back gate. Any defile or hollow is full of water. Drains stream, roads are inches deep. This is what London does when it rains properly – the water just sits on top, on top of the clay soil, on top of the asphalt and concrete. And still it rains.

I have dressed for ‘warm while wet’. This means I have a raincoat on but I don’t expect it to keep me dry – I have enough on so that when I ride and produce heat and sweat from the inside I will balance out the wet and cold from outside. It’s a delicate balance, it’s why we spend a fortune on over-hyped materials and products.

In these conditions the best piece of clothing I have is something I got for a fiver in a bin at Evans. It is the most detested piece of cycling clothing available, the type of thing that anyone with a shred of dignity would never wear; it’s an Altura day glow yellow helmet cover. It looks like a shower cap, only worse. I know I am the only one who will be sporting such an item and I know there are people who will cross the road to avoid talking to me and others who will immediately write me off as some old eccentric who mistakenly thought North London Dirt was a CTC ride and not the achingly cool gravel event it is. The rain cap is ghastliness personified, it is probably even less worn and appreciated than the SPD sandal.

But, dear reader, I know that it is the single item that will make the difference between a horrible experience and a good one. A helmet cover keeps the rain off your head and glasses, it stops water dribbling down the back of your neck, it keeps your head at the right temperature – not too hot, not too cold. I know this from long long hours in the rain on miserable Audax events – this awful piece of cheap stretchy nylon is my secret weapon for enjoyment on wet wet days.

So I was saturated but comfortable enough by the time I had ridden over to Stoke Newington for the socially-distanced start. I collected my card and made a quick get away – there’s no point in hanging around and getting cold.

The first bit of the ride was a reversal of the way I had just come – back towards home. I knew all the ins and outs of the first two hours of the ride so was able to make good progress and didn’t need to stop and pay much attention to the Garmin. Up along an urban cross route around the North Circular, then up to Chingford, over to ‘The Owl’ pub and down Mott St to Gunpowder park. From there out to the farm and over the NCR1 switchback hill, down to the canal and around towards Ware – all ground I knew.

There was water everywhere. The Lea was up, there were epic puddles on the paths that required a deft touch – you either railed around the edges or cut through the middle, hovering above the saddle in case a hidden edge or rut lurked beneath the surface. It was absorbing and I found I was enjoying myself immensely.

The thing with ‘gravel’ riding is that it operates at a neat intersection of two of my oldest skill sets – riding a road bike as fast as possible for the distance in crappy weather and the off-road skills acquired in the early days of mountain biking, well before suspension and disc brakes. As such gravel riding is more of a return to the early days of MTBing, before full suspension made it easy to ‘overbike’ and take the difficulty out of things. Gravel biking is also the perfect pitch for London riding – there are endless backways and bridleways around London and plentiful easy singletrack, all of which suits a bike like my Datum.

At least in summer. Things get trickier in winter. When the water sits on the clay for long enough London trails get very slippery indeed and my Datum will clog with sludge in a few minutes. In those conditions a MTB or a proper CX or Gravel big with big clearances and knobbly tyres would be better. In fact a bike that is very similar to the MTBs I used to ride in the 80s and 90s.

Turning north off the Lea Canal and suddenly the ride was all new. A quick tarmac transition the route picked up a lovely long gravel arc that took us north up some great lanes. Then the route hut some bridleways around farm fields and the fun started to begin.

The tyres I have been riding all summer on my Datum are Gravel Kings. They have a little bit of tread. They are great on gravel and grit and dry paths. They are next to useless in proper mud. I would have swapped to knarlier treads for this ride but… I don’t have any. So I spent a bit of time slipping and sliding over farmy sludge, using all my mad skillz. Luckily it was flat so, apart from grunty, slow progress, it was ok. I knew, however, that some of the future terrain would not be so friendly.

It was also about this point that I realised that my front brake was shot. I had replaced my sintered pads with some resin ones in the week and wore them in with an hour long ride, but the grit and water has made them very noisy and now, as I pulled that lever, it came closer and closer to the handlebar each time. Now I knew resin pads would wear quicker, but four hours? I stopped and checked but everything was firm and set up right so there was no other explanation. That meant no more bombing and hauling up late – I spent the rest of the ride surfing the back brake (sintered) and using the front when I had no choice.

Last year I did NLD#2 closely after the triumph of Paris-Breat-Paris so the physical demands felt easy. Last year I just hammered my way through it without stopping at all, able to keep a good pace the whole way in a relaxed manner. This year well, barely any riding at all, so I am both a few kilos heavier, manys watts less muscular and my endurance is more like an Electric City car than a Diesel Truck. So I was noticing it now.

From the Northern most point the ride pulled back south and through a lovely backway past Ware, then down to the canal again, followed by a climb up onto the Broxborne ridge.

At this point the Canyon tent appeared and a couple of very nice gents gave me a stamp, a welcome fizzy drink and even oiled my chain. I has survived since breakfast at six on a couple of gels so extra sugar was needed.

From here I knew things would get ‘interesting’ as this section, while only 5 or 6 miles, took in the series of woods that had the most singletrack and the most amount of mud, not to mention a couple of short forest road climbs. This was the slowest section by far and my tyres were out of their depth, add in fifty miles of effort (see above) and it was challenging. It was also the place where I noticed how high my bottom gear was. 36 x 28 is not exactly gearing fit to scale muddy walls at an easy cadence, so I was grunting up the climbs now.

And still, it must be said, enjoying myself. I wasn’t riding with anyone, but there were other crazies a little in front and a little behind, friendly words, acknowledgements of just how wet we all were. Picking over slippery branches, charging over broadwalks and threading some obscure tracks was doing me a lot of good – a mix of blasting and having to concentrate and guide those tyres over slow-speed obstacles.

Finally coming out the other side, and still north of the M25, I was feeling a little hungry so at Goff’s Oak I sought out a shop and had a typical Audax lunch. For me that is chocolate milk, gluten free bars and a Muller rice and filling a bidon with the sticky filth of Lucozade, all consued at pace so as not to get cold.

Mind you it had stopped raining so I was able to free myself of the rain cap of shame. The other thing I noted about myself and the riders around me was the attitude to visibility. I refuse to buy black jackets. My bright blue Endura jacket is ok, it’s not as good as a shakedry but I just can’t stomach riding like a shadow on the road. I was also running day-lights, a excellent pairing of a small exposure on the front and a Leyzne on the back, both with flashing day modes that last 8 hours.

Everyone else I road past, or rode past me was all in black, with maybe some bright socks. A few had day lights. I guess I am just old and more sensitive to danger these days. I found myself thinking back to the 90s when it was hard (and very uncool) to have anything in black apart from your shorts. Cycling fashions…

From here the last third of the ride was an intricate thread down over the hills of North London, through Crews Hill and past Forty hall, followed by a lovely spice of single track before heading West, then south again, making a short dash through every scrap of green space possible right down to Crouch End, dodging many dog-walkers and Covid-bubbles out for a walk on the way. From here the route could have just blasted down the Green Lanes to Stokey, but no, the brothers grim had one last treat in store for tiring limbs – a short nasty Mur – before finally being able to more or less coast down over Finsbury Park and back to the Church.

I spent a pleasant ten minutes chatting and feeling good about myself and life before heading back home where I stripped off at the door and jumped into a shower before settling in to the rst of the day, which included a pizza, cider and the Giro.

All in all the ride was a lot harder this year – a mix of a harder route, harder weather and a distinct lack of fitness – but it was also a lot more satisfying. And while it might have been a bit quicker in the dry the technical challenge and thrill of wet riding had been really enjoyable. An intricate route means you are seldom grinding out the miles and there’s a lovely feeling of being guided by people who have put a lot of time and thought into the route.

So once again NLD was a great success, even with the weather and social aspect diminished.

Who’s the route for? Seasoned gravel riders would find that route comfortable and it would make a great half-day blast in high summer. New gravel riders with good road fitness would find it challenging but doable in good weather, but edgy in the wet. If you think sixty miles is a long way and you haven’t done the gravel thing before then I would still give it a go – there are multiple points you can take a suburban train when you’ve had enough – Broxbourne and Ware would be easy places to break the ride down. Once above Chingford there are not many places to restock though; carry enough to get you through to Goffs Oak (a couple of hours on).

I will certainly fire it up on the GPS next summer and ride it as a loop from my house and would be aiming for 5:15 to 5:30 hours after 6:15 in the rain.